That sentiment is especially true for Paul's enthusiastic young backers who regularly cite concerns about the growth of government and debt as their reasons for supporting him in the first place. They also fret over the loss of civil liberties and privacy rights under the pretext of the "war on terror." These young people are powering the burgeoning Students for Liberty (SFL) movement that has grown in just five years to more than 730 student groups. And they have their eyes on the future. "The large number of young people supporting Ron Paul," explains SFL's Alexander McCobin, "support the ideas he is advocating and are preparing to carry those ideas on when Ron Paul is no longer a public figure."
For now, however, Paul is enjoying the support of these motivated 20-somethings. In the seven states that have held either primaries or caucuses so far and for which we have reliable polls broken down by age, Paul won a plurality of the youth vote (18- to 29-year-olds) in five of them. He garnered the support of 48 percent of young Iowa caucus-goers and 46 percent of the youth vote in New Hampshire.
Paul also draws support from Democrats and independents who cross over to vote for him in the states where such party-switching is allowed (he garnered a larger share of the independent vote than any other candidate in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada) and from liberal bloggers with a civil-libertarian streak such as Salon's Glenn Greenwald. Predictably, then, skeptics suggest that Paul's backers aren't true Republicans and can safely be ignored.
They are only half-right on the first point and entirely off the mark on the second. Paul's supporters favor limited government, fiscal discipline, sound money, low taxes, fewer regulations, and less government spending. They could be Republicans, and many genuinely are. Meanwhile, Romney, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich could win the votes of every single registered Republican and still lose the election by a landslide. Self-identified Republicans represent just 27 percent of the electorate, compared with 31 percent who identify as Democrats and a record-high 40 percent who call themselves independents. Republicans must figure out a way to tap into those ideas of Paul that have bipartisan appeal, even if Ron Paul the person isn't the party's standard-bearer.
Paul's harshest critics like to dismiss him as an isolationist, but they should tell that to the tens of millions of Americans who want to remain engaged in the world without trying to run it. Paul's message appeals to those Americans who have tired of being held responsible for everything bad that happens in the world and always being on the hook to pick up the costs. A CNN survey last year found that just one in four Americans relished the United States' being the world's "policeman," and a Rasmussen poll concluded that a mere 11 percent of likely voters support that mission.
A big part of what people find so refreshing about Paul, however, limits his broader appeal. People like that he is not a typical politician -- that he speaks bluntly and from the heart. At times, however, his remarks betray a degree of disinterest that undermines his message. Paul, for example, seems to imply that he would do nothing at all to try to halt or slow Iran's nuclear program, when his focus should be on why the solutions proposed by the other leading candidates in the Republican presidential field are unlikely to solve the problem and would likely make it worse.
Paul is unlikely to win the Republican nomination, but he may have awakened a sleeping giant. Don't be surprised if a more polished politician -- in either party -- emerges in 2015 or 2016 and aggressively courts those Americans who see war as corrosive to freedom at home and want their military to focus on defending the United States and its citizens. On the other hand, if Republican leaders show Paul and his legions out the door, they will be turning away many of the same swing voters who turned the tide against the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008 and then swung back in their direction in 2010.